Hang Ups

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
We are convinced that through new technologies the learning floodgates are opening." It might sound like another pronouncement from the Amalgamated Union of Sages, Soothsayers, Seers and Smart Alecs, but this latest attempt to look into the seeds of time has to be taken more seriously than most.

The prediction comes in one of 15 lengthy reports from the Technology Foresight Programme a concerted attempt by the Office of Science and Technology to pick the brains of the country's movers and shakers in commerce, science, industry and education.

Although most teachers are unlikely to have the time to plough through the Foresight panel's findings on Learning and Leisure, or be particularly interested in its economic forecasts, they should, at least, be aware of its main conclusion. Quite simply and I paraphrase fings ain't going to be what they used to be.

Education is going to have to undergo a fundamental change. Take, for instance, the concept of "lifetime learning". It isn't simply a fancy way of filling up leisure time, or giving geriatrics jolly things to do. Rather, it's a prerequisite if we are to have a flexible workforce ready and willing to adapt to the constantly-changing demands of the future workplace.

It doesn't mean, however, that we're going to keep returning to college or training centre. Instead, the fabled information superhighway will deliver education, along with virtually everything else, directly to our homes. The report calls this the "domestication" of services. So, as well as being able to do our telewatching, teleworking, teleshopping and telebanking without ever leaving the sofa, we'll also be able to do our teleswotting.

CD-Roms might have as great an impact on home learning and on traditional schooling.

One reason, of course, is that multimedia is a superb educational tool. More importantly, big business can see that there are big bucks to be made from it, and will peddle it for all it's worth.

"The multimedia education market has the potential to be a bigger grossing industry than the entertainment business," says film producer Sir David Puttnam. The report quotes him as saying that Britain is uniquely placed to win an enviable share of this world market, but we've only got about two years to do it. "Either by the end of that period we are motoring and moving rapidly in the business or the Americans will be so far ahead that we will never catch them."

But it isn't only in providing educational software that Britain has the edge over the competition. The report predicts prosperous times ahead, providing we appreciate that our greatest national asset is our creativity. Whether it is television programmes or pop music, we have the knack of creating a product that other countries seem to like except our entries in the Eurovision Song Contest.

To sustain our output, we need to foster a future generation of David Puttnams, Elton Johns and Lynda La Plantes. But these new kids on the block will have to be able to tailor their masterpieces to suit the new multimedia format. We need young people who are both artistic and dab hands at using a computer who can summon the Muse, and manage the mouse. It does seem crucial, then, that schools should persevere with a policy of integrating IT into every curriculum area.

It's equally important that all our children have an opportunity to immerse themselves in the new technology. The report voices serious doubts that they will. It questions the naive assumption that the superhighway will be extended to every home and school the cost would simply be too high. This will "disenfranchise a substantial sector of society".

It's the least well-off, of course, who will miss out. But you don't have to be a member of the Amalgamated Union of Sages, Soothsayers, Seers and Smart Alecs to be able to predict that.

Progress Through Partnership, vol 11, Learning and Leisure (Pounds 15) from HMSO

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